Bring Back the Blackboard

Image: Anthony Canamucio The scene: the Baltimore Convention Center, Oct. 16, 2002. The laptops were aligned on the table next to the podium, their owners fidgeting in their seats just below, caffeined up, plugged in, and ready to go. A cacophony of cell phones sounded a final "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" before fading into temporary silence. Visions of stem cells graced the screen as the first speaker quickly checked his slides, and the huge room filled for this first symposium of the 52nd

Nov 11, 2002
Ricki Lewis
Image: Anthony Canamucio

The scene: the Baltimore Convention Center, Oct. 16, 2002. The laptops were aligned on the table next to the podium, their owners fidgeting in their seats just below, caffeined up, plugged in, and ready to go. A cacophony of cell phones sounded a final "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" before fading into temporary silence. Visions of stem cells graced the screen as the first speaker quickly checked his slides, and the huge room filled for this first symposium of the 52nd annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics.

Then, disaster.

A booming but disembodied voice launched into a spirited talk on genetic diversity. The speaker was a she, Joanna Mountain, an assistant professor of anthropological sciences and genetics at Stanford University; yet the presenter checking his slides was a he, John Gearhart, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

As the phrase "concurrent session" took on new meaning, the trio of stem cell gurus and their moderator, Paula Gregory, an associate professor of genetics at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, faced with their own dead microphones, put their heads together and quickly revamped the schedule so that the presenter with the best vocal cords, number three on the program, was now number one. Gregory shouted, "We're going to try the unique idea of talking loud." Added Brian Sorrentino, director of experimental hematology at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, now catapulted to the opening act, "I have the biggest mouth, so I get to go first!"

Sorrentino effectively outbellowed the anthropogenomics speaker to discuss mouse hematopoietic stem cells for about 10 minutes. And then, like Charlton Heston as Moses hearing celestial orders to part the Red Sea, another voice exploded from the ether. "Good morning! This is working, isn't it?" Hammering. Louder hammering. "1-2. 1-3. 1-4." The audio system was corrected, and the program continued, stem cells and anthropology separated at last. But the sessions to follow were increasingly plagued by another glitch, the inability to get Powerpoint® presentations up and running. Against this backdrop of technological failure, I began to think about what was perhaps the best of many presentations I've heard over the years.

The scene: a weekly journal club at the General Electric Global Research Center in Schenectady, NY. The speaker was Ivar Giaever, Institute Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, CEO of Applied BioPhysics, and winner of the 1973 Nobel Prize in physics. A biology convert, Giaever spoke about the human genome project, using tools quite archaic by today's computerized standards: an overhead projector, acetate sheets, and four colored Sharpie pens. Yet his talk was riveting and easy to follow as he drew color-coded molecules piece by piece and told a story without so much as a glance at a note.

Remembering Giaever's spare but spectacular genome talk sent me even further back in time, to the "chalk talks" of grad school days, circa 1974. In the lab we'd gather around the blackboard every morning and take turns scribbling our ideas, wiping away one and replacing it with another as our thinking evolved. But outside the lab, Powerpoint seems to have taken over the lecture circuit.

Powerpoint is a wonderful tool for building an entertaining and visually exciting presentation. An extremely powerful learning tool, it enables instructors to break down complex biological events, such as an action potential or DNA replication, piece by piece. But Powerpoint in its common guise at scientific meetings has, I think, instead catalyzed a syndrome of information overload, while at the same time demolishing any prospect of spontaneity or deviation from the locked-in plan.

The ease of the approach seems to bring out a human desire to cram as many images as possible into a given time period. Take the 15-minute "slide shows" of many scientific meetings. At one session at the Tri-Genome conference in San Francisco two years ago, I counted 42 images flashed before the catatonic audience in that time (minus the requisite two minutes to adjust the laptop). The slides did not have time to register on my retinas, let alone actually make it to my brain. Last month in Baltimore, a few slide shows surpassed that 3.23 images-per-minute record. Note to presenters: more isn't better.

Powerpoint presentations may be too much of a good thing. Giaever points out that they are all starting to seem the same. Maybe it's time, just once in a while, to go back to the overhead projector--or if a gathering is small enough, even the blackboard.

Ricki Lewis, PhD (rickilewis@nasw.org), is a geneticist, textbook author, and contributing editor.